Good Saturday Books: L. P. Hartley’s My Fellow Devils, Storm Jameson’s A Day Off, & David Mitchell’s Slade House

Hartley my fellow devils 512kugsKhlL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_We all love a really good read. Preferably with shoes off, a cup of tea on the table, and all electronic devices turned off.

Saturdays especially are great days for discovering really-good-bordering-on-great books.  Mind you, not every good Saturday book is a classic.  But I recently read three superb novels that are right on the edge.

L. P. Hartley‘s The Go-Between and the Eustace and Hilda trilogy are masterpieces. In recent years, John Murray has reissued some of Hartley’s less well-known books. In My Fellow Devils, Margaret Pennefeather, a prim upper-class spinster,  devotes herself to committee work and social work.

“But she was far from being discontented or shut up in herself.  She had a great deal to give; and in the small town where they lived, within easy reach of London yet surprisingly not a dormitory town, she found outlets for it.”

Friends think she is too cloistered. When they learn she has never even seen the actor Colum MacInnes, they insist on a night out at the movies.  It is a gangster film:  she doesn’t care for his acting.  But she becomes infatuated when she  sees him in a sentimental play in London.  She breaks off her engagement to a man who loves her and marries Colum.

Churches are important in their marriage from the beginning. Colum, who describes himself as a bad Catholic, is a charming deceiver.  Margaret, who is not religious, refuses to convert to Catholicism, but they get married in a beautiful Catholic church in Italy by some special dispensation.  And while they are in Italy, Margaret sightsees at all the famous cathedrals and churches.

The more she learns about Colum, the more comfort she takes in visiting churches.  The marriage is miserable.  He is barely on the right side of jail.   He robs their apartment for the insurance money:  it happens a few times before she figures it out.  After she learns of Colum’s crimes, she talks to a priest who adamantly warns her about Colum.   I am not a fan of Hollywoodish novels, whether they are set in Hollywood or London, but this one is unputdownable.  It is a great Catholic novel, and yet Hartley was not Catholic!

storm jameson a day off 415ytCIo5FL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_The underrated  writer Storm Jameson had brilliant ideas if a somewhat uneven style.  Her powerful novella A Day Off is  absolutely stunning.  It has recently been reissued by Bloomsbury Reader as an e-book.  It is also included in a Virago collection, Women Against Men.

The unnamed middle-aged heroine lives in a dingy room in London.  The weekend client who  has supported her financially for a few years has deserted her. She is almost penniless but decides to go out for a day on a spree:  she wonders who buys all the books on Charing Cross Road, fantasizes about meeting a man who will take care of her, goes out to tea, and steals a purse from an old woman.

Jameson’s heroine is desperate, dishonest, and determined to survive.  Here is her reaction to two women who stare at her.

Rude old ape.  Actually pointing.  She swung round to stare angrily after two elderly ladies.  What if I was singing.  There’s no law is there?  She wanted to shout a word or two after them. Give them a few they won’t have heard.  Tightening her lips, she stalked on, but now was all on edge and bothered.  The disagreeable impression faded slowly.

This is fascinating, convincing, and horrifying.  We can all imagine ourselves on the brink:  what if we lost everything?  Women’s lives are so often precarious.

David Mitchell slade_houseDavid  Mitchell, who has been shortlisted twice for the Man Booker Price and recently won the World Fantasy Award for The Bone Clocks, is always in the news.  He has written literary fiction and he has written science fiction. He has spoken up on behalf of genre fiction.   In his new literary horror novel, Slade House, he skillfully manipulates the tropes of horror and fantasy.  Imagine E. Nesbit’s children’s fantasy,  The Enchanted Castle, fused with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of  Hill House.  In Nesbitt’s classic, children find a magic ring in a seemingly enchanted garden, but the warped artefact twists all their wishes:  in one terrifying scene, it brings the Ugly Wuglys ( life-size dolls made by the children of broomsticks, old clothes, and masks) to life. Add Jackson’s eerie haunted house and you crank up the nightmare.

In this genre-busting page-turner, a supernatural brother and sister prey on the dearest fantasies of gifted human beings.  They lure them into Slade House.  In the opening chapter, the  narrator, Nathan, who is autistic with a touch of OCD,  and his musician mother have been invited to a concert at Slade House.  The problem is they cannot find the house on Slade Alley.  Finally, they discover  “a small black iron door, set into the brick wall.”  It is so small they have to stoop.  And then they are in a fantasy garden.

…and we’re looking into a garden; a buzzing, still summery garden.  The garden’s got roses, toothy sunflowers, spatters of poppies, clumps of foxgloves, and lots of flowers I can’t name.  There’s a rockery, a pond, bees grazing and butterflies.  It’s epic.  “Cop a load of that,” says Mum.  Slade House is up at the top, old, blocky, stern and gray and half smothered by fiery ivy, not at all like the houses on Westwood Road and Cranbury Avenue.

Gorgeous, lyrical writing, no?

Nathan plays a terrifying game with a strange boy who disappears, and then Lady Grayer summons him into the house.  Nathan  discovers paintings of  people with no eyes, and when he finds the painting of himself, we know he’s in a trap..

The novel consists of five linked stories between 1979 and 2015, each with a different narrator who is lured into Slade House.  The ending is disappointing–it seems to prepare us for a sequel.  But otherwise it’s a rocking good ghost story!

Anyway, three very good books!

Virago Classics: Moving on from Rosamond Lehmann to Storm Jameson

Storm Jameson

Storm Jameson

Rosamond Lehmann, a dazzling writer of nuanced women’s novels, cannot hold a candle to Storm Jameson, a versatile novelist who expresses herself less beautifully.

Lehmann is a bit too melodramatic for my taste.

Don’t get me wrong.  I loved Invitation to the Waltz, Lehmann’s stream-of-consciousness novel about a girl’s first dance.  But the sequel, The Weather in the Streets,  is too earnest and even slightly ridiculous in its sensitive narrative of Olivia’s masochistic love affair with an upper-class married man. ( It is admittedly difficult to describe such suffering without going overboard.)

None Turn Back Jameson 2291763Storm Jameson (1891-1986), on the other hand, writes about more interesting, even more “grown-up” subjects.  She describes her heroines’ work and political interests as well as complicated love affairs and marriages.  Jameson was a socialist, a pacifist, a member of the International Women’s League, and the president the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists (PEN). She wrote a splendid autobiography, Journey from the North, and I am a mad fan of her trilogy, The Mirror in Darkness, the story of a leftist writer heroine, Hervey Russell, after World War I. It  consists of None Turn Back, Company Parade, and Love in Winter.

In her autobiography, Jameson gives a moving account of her generation’s idealism in the wake of World War I.  After graduation from the University of Leeds, she moved to London, and said she and her Yorkshire friends confidently believed they would live as equals of graduates of elite schools.

Our freedom intoxicated us; there was nothing we should not be able to attempt, no road not open to us, no barriers in the world that we children of farmers and seamen were going to walk about in as equals. Our certainty, our optimism, our illusions, are what mark our difference from every other generation which talked its tongues off its roots since. No generation has ever been so naturally idealistic. Nor, perhaps, so happy, since of all the illusions on which young men get drunk the illusion of a future, a road running toward infinity, breeds happiness more surely and quickly than even a successful love-affair.

Naturally, it was not that simple.  But this passage very much reminds me of our own hope during the social change of the ’60s and ’70s.

Jameson Women Against Men 2064158Why do I mention Jameson and Lehmann together? Jameson’s  novella, “Delicate Monster,” in Women Against Men, a collection of three novellas, like Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets, is an account of infidelity. Jameson’s narrator, Fanny, a serious novelist, is shattered by the betrayal of her oldest friend, Victoria Form, a best-selling writer of bodice-ripper romances, who seduces Fanny’s husband.

Victoria, of course, is so narcissistic that she cannot take it seriously.  She marries men, always for advantage, tires of them, and has affairs.  When a young man commits suicide because of her, she tells everyone about it.  Otherwise they wouldn’t know.

Fanny confronts Victoria, pretending not to care much, but milking her for details.  Victoria soon realizes that Charles had betrayed her to Victoria.

Poor Fanny,” she said.

“You’ve had so many men.  You might have left me mine,” I said ridiculously.

But Fanny gets over it.

You will laugh to hear what put me in the way of being cured.  Victoria wrote another novel, which I read–for no better reason than knowing it would give an account (romantic) of herself and Charles.  Victoria never waits for an experience to cool before rushing it into print.

Charles was not the main of the novel.  He was a chapter headed–you have guessed it–“Passionate Interlude.”

Surprisingly, Victoria’s novel is very funny. Tears stream down Fanny’s cheeks as she laughs at a scene where Victoria sees in the mirror that Charles’s legs are too long for the love seat.

I like Fanny’s anger.  There is nothing, nothing worse than being betrayed by a friend.  If a husband has an affair, it is bad, but if a friend seduces him, it is the worst betrayal of all.

Ten years later, Fanny and Victoria make up. Fanny has missed her friend.  They have known each other all their lives.  It is easy to understand.

Victoria continues to be a monster.  Her daughter, Camilla, a  sensible, loyal woman, marries a man of a lower class whom she loves very much.  Victoria works very, very hard to break them up.

And yet Fanny enjoys her company.  Honestly, don’t we all have friends like this?

Fanny, who becomes a literary agent after her divorce, also writes entertainingly about writers.  Not just Victoria is awful–all of them are!  So she says.  She does not enjoy her lunches with them. They all think they deserve to be famous.   She longs for her old job, as a reader.

Fanny’s anger over Victoria’s betrayal spills over into her new career.

I loved this!  I will report on my Jameson binge from time to time.